Protein has long been known as a key building block for our bodies, but the extent of its importance is likely underrepresented. Protein helps to build skin, bones, cartilage, muscles, and even blood. It aids enzyme and hormone production, provides calories for energy, and repairs tissues. Every cell in our bodies was created and stays intact because of protein.
In short, protein is a macronutrient, meaning it’s impossible to grow or stay healthy without it.
And the consequences of getting inadequate protein are many. Some well-known results, especially as you age, are muscle loss and brittle bones. Your hair, nails, and skin could weaken, and your immunity could suffer.
All that said, you should take in as much protein as possible, right? Well, not so fast. Getting too much protein can be just as bad for your health, especially if you do so long term. Excess protein can result in greater thirst, kidney stones, and weight gain, among other health ailments. Research indicates that it could even shorten your life span.
So knowing how much protein to eat, and what kinds you should eat, is vitally important for your overall health.
How much protein to eat
How do you ensure you’re consuming enough protein—but not too much? A few things can help determine your answer, such as your weight, gender, age, and activity level. For example, men generally need more protein every day than women, but that’s not true for women who are pregnant. If you’re a bodybuilder or a marathoner, you’ll need more protein than someone with a more sedentary lifestyle. Also, as explained earlier, elderly people usually need more protein to account for things like the loss of muscle mass.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 46 grams of daily protein for women and 56 grams for men. However, that number skyrockets to 71 for women who are pregnant or lactating. If you want to be more exact to account for variations such as those discussed earlier, try to get around 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. So, for example, a 160-pound person should aim for around 56 grams of quality protein each day.
What kinds of protein to eat
If you blinked, you may have missed the word “quality” in the previous sentence, but it’s important to not gloss over that. Because almost all experts agree that the types of protein you consume matter as much as how much—and that it’s important to vary your proteins to get well-balanced nutrition.
The majority of Americans still get their protein from meat, such as beef, poultry, and fish. And each provides unique added health benefits like iron in red meat and omega-3 fatty acids in seafood, for example.
However, in recent years, the differences between these sources have been magnified, and for good reason. Red meat is an excellent source of protein and other nutrients, but higher amounts have also been linked to a higher risk of serious health conditions, most notably heart disease and cancer. So both the government and medical experts suggest limiting your intake of both red meats and processed meats and instead consuming primarily white meats, which are leaner. To put this in perspective, beef and skinless turkey both give you plenty of protein (20+ grams), but the former will likely have quite a bit more calories, fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
Meatless protein sources
With more and more people opting for a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, a fair question would be “Can they get enough protein?” The answer is yes, with a caveat or two. Some good dairy options are milk, eggs, and cheese, while plant-based foods like beans, peas, nuts, seeds, lentils, and soy products, such as tofu and tempeh, also provide plenty of protein for this lifestyle choice, as the numbers back up. For example, if you’re a 140-pound woman and enjoy a meal that includes a half cup of tofu (10 grams of protein) and a serving of nuts (14 grams), you’ve already gotten in more than half of your protein for the day. If you decide to go 100 percent vegan, however, make sure to vary your protein choices to get well-balanced nutrition because, for example, excess soy can be bad for you.
The protein supplement market has grown in leaps and bounds in the twenty-first century and is now a $19 billion behemoth. But protein-packed powders, shakes, and bars should mostly be limited to athletes and bodybuilders, who would reap the most benefits (although studies aren’t conclusive for how much even they get). For the rest of us, the risks outweigh the rewards. Unless you have an on-the-run lifestyle that you supplement with an occasional protein bar, you can easily get adequate protein through the foods you eat every day.
The impact that protein has on our health is undeniable. But, as with most things in life, too much of a good thing can be a detriment to our well-being. If you want to ensure that you get just the right amount of protein every day, pay attention to nutrition labels, follow FDA guidelines, and load up on natural, good-for-you options. Your health will reap the rewards.
Be sure to ask your doctor about your protein intake and whether it needs to be adjusted.
For more info, visit myplate.gov/eat-healthy/protein-foods